Monday, October 27, 2008

Truth and Choice

The Gospel portion cited here is Matthew 22:34-46.

Circling one another like fighters in a ring or fencers set to parry and thrust are Jesus and a whole bunch of very religious, very spiritual, very upright pillars of their society, the Pharisees and the Sadducees. Each of these groups is trying to catch Jesus in his own talk, setting him up to make a very public mistake that might cost him the people’s respect. They are circling around him like a street gang, craftily trying to limit his options and squeeze him into saying or doing something that will be picked up by the first-century version of Fox News. These are perfect Gospels for the last days of a presidential campaign.

Last Sunday, we heard the Pharisees hoping to trap Jesus with their tricky question, “Is it right to pay taxes to the emperor or not?” He handled that by calling for a coin and asking “Whose head do you see?”

Try that with a quarter and who’s there but George Washington. “Being a citizen carries its demands,” Jesus might say. “So does belonging to the kingdom of God.”

With that, Jesus demonstrates a skill that he teaches to all who seek truth: Don’t let other people dictate the terms of your choices. They may tell you that you have to choose between this and that. Truth may require you to hold both in balance, as you see through the veil of opposites to the unity that requires imagination.

And in the case of taxes, we can see why. God does not work solely through what we might call the sacred; God works also in the realm of the secular. In a few short moments we will renew our baptismal vows, including God’s call to strive for justice and peace among all people, and to respect the dignity of every human being. The just ordering of human society, says the Bible in countless ways, is a chief priority of God and a chief responsibility of each child of God. Respecting the dignity of every member of society is costly, requires our investing in the common good, including the payment of taxes.

In today’s portion, a lawyer starts another dance of death around Jesus. “Teacher, reveal your bias: there are many commandments in our law—which one is greatest?” Picture the resulting headlines: Would-be messiah preaches against graven images but appears uninterested in stamping out adultery!

Don’t let them dictate your choices, Jesus demonstrates again as he answers this lawyer not by citing any of the thou-shalt-nots, but by using the positive voice of his ancient and brilliant Hebrew tradition: “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” Or, as we hear it in The Message, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your passion and prayer and intelligence.’ This is the most important, the first on any list. But there is a second to set alongside it: ‘Love others as well as you love yourself.’ These two commands are pegs; everything in God’s law and the Prophets hangs from them.”

And everything Jesus says about God shows him revealing this truth: that God is not a subject to be studied or a tribal power to be claimed. God is One to be known through relationship, through loving, through serving. Pharisees and Sadducees, like very religious and very spiritual people in all ages, may prefer to reduce God to a subject to be studied, a tribal power to be claimed and owned. That is less than God.

We are about to baptize Nina, a child of God. That title recognizes God already at work in her life, always at work in her life. God doesn’t partner up with Nina because of what we do this morning: we are running to catch up with God who bestows gifts of faith, hope, and love. We are gathering around her to watch with awe as these gifts of God grow and blossom in her, and, because it is the Church’s responsibility to do so, to pray that God will keep increasing in her these gifts of faith, hope, and love—and not just to pray that, but to coach her to recognize her gifts, encourage her to practice and exercise them, model for her what those gifts look like when they are put at the service of God, and share with her our own gifts.

What a time she has been born into! Apocalyptic predictions meet us every morning as we hear the news, many an evening as we hear the closing bell on the Exchange. Daily, we learn what we have been taking for granted. On a good day, we recall who and whose we are. Every now and again, we may recognize that what is happening to us is truth, the clearing away of so much that has been so false for so long and the immersing of our world for a time in the cold bath of truth.

Made clear today is the truth about who Nina is, made clear in such a way that we would have to be very stubborn indeed not to realize and welcome the same truth about ourselves: that by the generous and gracious gifting of God, each of us is a citizen of the kingdom of God, a living member of the Body of Christ in the world, an honored member of his family with a place at his table, united with him in his death so as to be joined with him in his resurrection, an instrument of peace, a defender of justice.

Nina’s baptism will help us recall who and whose we are: people called to, and privileged to, know and love and serve God through relationship with the one who teaches us how to seek and embrace truth.

His lessons, from two thousand years of market cycles, economic spirals, and global calamities, are a fresh fit for right now.

Don’t let others dictate the terms of your choices. They may tell you that you have to choose between this and that. Truth may require you to hold both in balance.

As tiring as it gets, consciously choose to pay attention so that you discern the spirit within what you’re hearing about the future, then choose to invest your faith and hope and charity where you sense the positive energy of truth.

Welcome the adventure of life that must be lived on new terms. Embrace the truth you are learning, and be patient with it. In a period of decrease, focus on the increase of God’s gifts to you, gifts of faith, hope, and charity—gifts of trust, courage, and love.

“‘Love the Lord your God with all your passion and prayer and intelligence.’ This is the most important, the first on any list. But there is a second to set alongside it: ‘Love others as well as you love yourself.’ These two commands are pegs; everything in God’s law and the Prophets hangs from them.”

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Wearing Authority

Scripture portions mentioned here are Isaiah 25:1-9, Philippians 4:1-9, and Matthew 22:1-14.

Thank God, we have just 22 more days of campaigning to endure. I even imagine God saying, “For heaven’s sake, get this over with!”

“Many are called, but few are chosen.” Thinking back to the primaries, many felt called. In the end, just one gets elected. One is found to be the best fit to wear the presidency of this nation. His oppponent will be rather like the fellow in our parable: not vested, not wearing the mantle of this authority.

And that one will, at least for a while, be speechless. Maybe it wouldn’t be a bad idea at this juncture if both candidates and their campaigns went speechless. Aren’t they both repeating themselves a lot?

So into the outer darkness will one of our candidates go, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Exactly where his opponent’s campaign has suggested he belongs, and have done their darnedest to send him.

What’s missing in all this distressing, disturbing, predictable campaign behavior is anything more than a passing hint that one’s opponent has been working, and will be working, for the best interests of the very same nation, putting his shoulder to the same wheel of the same general good that will be so very challenging to achieve that the two parties are going to need each other to do it. The purpose of campaigning is to convince people that one’s opponent isn’t bound to the best interests of this country, isn’t a respected member of the same Senate, doesn’t really mean it at the start of the debate when that apparently warm handshake and grip of the arm gets given.

It’s a sharp contrast we hear in St. Paul’s op ed piece today, written for the Phillipian Times Sentinel, back when that community was feeling the tension between two bearers of authority in Philippi, two women named Euodia and Syntyche. We don’t know what they were divided over. The issues have been lost, across the centuries. It’s important to notice that women were in the forefront of the early Church. Commentators say that Paul admires and respects them both, because he names them both. Paul sometimes fails to name Christian authorities whom he does not admire or respect. St. Paul sometimes uses the “that one” approach. But not here.

As he handles their controversy, he first speaks to the unity of the community at Philippi, calling them (regardless of which leader they like or agree with) “my joy and crown”. And he reminds his beloved people of the great power they have to stand firm in the Lord Jesus, their unity and their peace. If they will practice that skill of standing firm, it will help Euodia and Syntyche to find their unity. The people can hold their leaders to a worthy standard in this way, by their own behavior.

Paul keeps to himself any opinion he has about their controversy. He affirms them both as trusted colleagues who have struggled beside him in the work of the gospel, and they are part of a yet larger team of co-workers who all have in common the general good of the community.

Above the tensions and frustrations that they would talk about at the water cooler, Paul summons the people to remember whose they are, that their names have been written by God in the book of life. Feel the privilege in which you stand, he reminds them. Rejoice, and show a generous spirit to everyone. (That’s a better translation than “Let your gentleness be known to everyone.”) Show a generous spirit.

God is nearer to you than breath itself, so for heaven’s sake pray, and pray thankfully, and you’ll find that the peace of God will be your steadying power.

Then he advises them how to pay attention in times of turmoil. These ought to be requirements of every candidate for public office, and their campaign staffs. “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in the service of the Christ, and the God of peace will be with you.”

That would be putting on the Lord Jesus Christ, in Gospel language. Since we’re not a theocracy, and not franchised as a Christian nation, let’s say it differently: A candidate keeping his campaign positive and respectful will, in the eyes of the people, wear the mantle of highest public service— and so long as we the people value and respect the unity we have as citizens of one nation indivisible, we will hold our candidates to worthy standards, by our own behavior.

Speaking of wearing things, what’s up with that robe in our Gospel parable today? That poor fellow didn’t get up that morning saying, “I think I’ll go to a wedding banquet today.” He was among the rank and file from Main Street who got persuaded to fill that hall. How could any of the guests be expected, under those conditions, to have the right clothes on?

Here’s a story rather like last Sunday’s. That one was about a landowner, his vineyard, and his decision to put it under new management when his tenants broke the terms of their lease and broke into open revolt by murdering the owner’s son when he came to gather his father’s share of the produce.

That story was once a simple parable that became, in Matthew’s hands, a fullblown allegory telling the salvation history of the people of God. The same is true of this one.

Hear today’s story in its simpler earlier form in Luke’s Gospel. There it’s not a wedding feast, not a king throwing it for his son, no punitive military action to punish the invited guests who refused to attend. All that is because Luke wasn’t trying to use the story the way Matthew does, to tell the whole nine yards of how God called Israel to sit at table with him (we heard that summons in the ancient text of Isaiah today), how Israel refused, how Israel’s great capital Jerusalem was destroyed in retribution, and how God opened the banquet hall of his kingdom to all people, Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female, bad and good alike. Whew! What a lot to squeeze into fifteen verses.

In this kind of story, a humble parable having become an ambitious allegory, everything stands for something, each detail symbolizes something bigger than itself.

Matthew’s first hearers knew it when they heard it: that wedding robe is the plain white linen baptismal garment, the very kind each of them had worn when lowered into the river, the lake, the sea, the stream where it happened that they had put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and where their names were written in the book of life.

And they heard Matthew driving home his point: Christians have been unexpectedly included in the salvation history of Israel. It was by grace, by God’s generous spirit that the kingdom of heaven had been thrown open to them too—but they may not presume on that grace. It is not enough to accept the invitation and then do nothing more than just show up for a free meal. To be part of the salvation history of God, one must wear the mantle of faith showing itself in service and a generous spirit.

That’s the meaning of the robe. At many places in the New Testament, conversion of life is pictured as putting on new clothes. Not designer suits, no. More like the undergarment that Jesus stripped down to at the last supper, when he washed the feet of his disciples. Which I am meant to remember every time I put on this simple shift that I wear in worship.

And it’s all about the kingdom of heaven, this story that Jesus tells, with Matthew’s help. The kingdom of heaven starts with the generous gift of a king for his son, a love so unbounded that it wants to embrace all. And the kingdom of heaven comes on earth, God’s will gets done on earth as in heaven, when the rank and file of Main Street, you and I, put on the Lord Jesus Christ as our way of being in the world.

What will this require? What will this empower?

That generous spirit that Paul expects, the spirit that sees the best in all, especially in our opponents and in our adversities. The generous spirit that knows when it’s time to be renewed in prayer and grounded in peace. The commitment to unity and community, the skill of standing firm in the Lord, that will express itself in generous stewardship even in times likes these, especially in times like these. And the freedom to rejoice.

And all the vows of our Baptism, calling for justice to roll down through us like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream. That was Luke’s purpose in telling the banquet story: In his version, when all the proper guests make their excuses and cannot come, it is the poor,the crippled, the blind, and the lame who are gathered into that banquet hall. That’s Luke’s way of preaching the sermon Matthew sets out to preach: To be in Christ is to wear a mantle of faith showing itself in service and a generous spirit.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

What is the Price of Truth?

This sermon refers to Philippians 3:4b-14 and Matthew 21:33-46.

How anxious do you feel?

In some conversations I’ve been in this past week, anxiety was so thick that you couldn’t cut it with a knife. But it cuts, undercuts, shortcuts its way not so much to the mind or the heart as to the bowels—well, I won’t go further with that.

Some of us have family members who work in the financial sector, who worry about the viability of their jobs. No man is an island, and job cuts in one sector will be felt in others.

Quite a few of our members are in or near retirement, and in that circle there’s lots of fretting about investments losing value, cutting into pensions.

Non-profit institutions dependent on endowment income have to take into account not just cut earnings, but slippage of restricted endowments below thresholds at which they can be drawn upon at all. This was already bedeviling us here at St. John’s—it’s bound to trip us up now.

Should I ask again: How anxious are you? Anxiety cuts at us sharply.

The truth also cuts. There is a saying that the truth of a matter cuts both ways. That can mean many things, and suggests at least that life is a puzzling adventure full of surprise and irony, that the reality inside our experience often isn’t what it appears on the outside, and that it takes time for a story to be told whole and full.

Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, commented last week on the market collapse: “This crisis exposes the element of basic unreality in the situation—the truth that almost unimaginable wealth has been generated by equally unimaginable levels of fiction, paper transactions with no concrete outcome beyond profit for traders,” he wrote.

That could be an invitation to dare practice the kind of consistent gratitude that St. Paul recommends when he urges us to thank God in all circumstances. Any takers on that?

Consider it. If there’s a human tendency as pernicious as anxiety, it’s denial. If we are where we are on Wall Street today not just because of the greed and corruption of some, but by the denial of many, then let’s have done with denial. Let’s welcome truth cutting through every layer of deception and distraction and hype and hysteria and lousy values, even as it hurts like hell. Why not dare look for the gift in what we suffer? Can’t we build a better economy on truth than on lies?

As St. Paul tells his story, he was living a life of denial, denying the power of God’s Spirit as it blew and rattled its way through the creaky edifices of first-century religion and society. He denied God’s care for a whole world by believing a theology that monopolized God’s care for just one tribe. He denied the call to change, the right of God to require change, the freedom of God to judge and challenge and transform the daily round of commerce and education, household and government.

Paul nearly perfected a denial of the spirit, choosing (in his own words) to be confident in the flesh. Then, in the flesh, on that perilous road to Damascus, he got whomped by reality, clobbered by the force of all that he was repressing, whaled by a devastating blow that he never quite explains to our analytical minds, but which rendered him an invalid for a season, and landed him right in the hands of his nemesis, the fledgling Christian community, the very group (still within Judaism) that he was intent on putting out of business, and who would nurse him to health and midwife his new birth.

Paul, whose denial of the spirit gave him a career trading on fear, falls calamitously into an unknowable future which he will come to treasure as it opens him to spirit and truth. He is not a bad icon to place on your television set, above the nightly news and the streaming Dow Jones.

He teaches us to sing a new song with these lyrics: “Whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him…”

So comes the freedom that allows a colleague, Stephen Bonsey, Canon Pastor of the Cathedral of St. Paul in Boston, to write to his people:

“The urgent duty of Christians in times like these is to resist the culture of fear, step outside the confusion and controversy, and lay hold of fundamental truths. One such truth is this: God has given us a world of abundance. God provides our daily bread. There is more than enough of all that we require to go around. The marketplace, when it is fulfilling its proper function in service to creation, facilitates this distribution.

“There is only one thing ultimately that can threaten us with the specter of hunger, loss of housing or denial of health care, and that is fear: fear of scarcity; fear that we will suffer deprivation as others will take more than their share. Such fears inspire pre-emptive action in the form of greed, corruption, and deception. These are the forces that distort markets to serve the few and powerful at the expense of the many – thus creating the very scarcity that seemed to threaten us.

“If we act in the present crisis out of fears inspired by the great lie of scarcity, we will inevitably create the very conditions we sought to avoid.

“Is it possible to consider another path? Could we approach the present crisis as an opportunity, not to shore up a failed system, but to build an alternative? What would it look like to devote $700 billion – or whatever the amount – to build economic strength from the ground up rather than the top down? What if we were to shape public policy to encourage markets of shared abundance in local efforts for sustainable agriculture, green energy, universal health care, excellence in education and renewed infrastructure?

“What if we were to act in confidence and strength in service of the truth, rather
than out of fear in service of a lie?”

Our Gospel today gives us a parable from the commodities market. Sweet cultivated grapes are the cash crop, and wine the product. The vineyard’s owner, after establishing his enterprise, trusts an economic system in which he puts certain people in charge of managing his business, and retires to the coast of Maine (or some equally appealing countryside). He expects to continue to receive his share of the produce.

But his managers deny him his due portion, and his rights of ownership. They deny the authority of the agents he sends to communicate with them—they even deny these messengers their lives, and when they murder the owner’s son they deny their very relationship with the owner, and are in full revolt. They’ve exalted themselves, hitching their star to a lie, the delusion that the vineyard is theirs simply because they’re standing on it and the owner is not. This market is not fulfilling its proper function in service to creation, is not facilitating just distribution.

After telling the story, Jesus asks the crowd, “So what does justice require?”

“New management!” they shout—and no golden parachutes for those scoundrels!

And at this moment, the truth cuts both ways. They have heard the surface of his story, but now must experience a very different application from deep within it. Jesus is pressing out of the grapes of this vineyard a bitter wine for them to taste. God is the vintner in the deeper story Jesus tells, and they are the scoundrels who don’t give God his due, who prefer to be confident in the flesh and believe that God cares just for them and not for the whole creation. They are the ones denying God’s call to change, God’s right to require change, God’s freedom to judge and challenge and transform commerce and education, households and governments.

And we might be the scoundrels, too, if we perpetuate a system that gives tax advantages to its billionaires and its most profitable businesses, while at the same time creating each year millions more households that cannot afford food or fuel to heat those homes, as hard-working low-income Americans who presently wash the floors at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac slip down the ladder that once led up, now just down.

We might be the scoundrels, too, if we refuse to recognize that right now, when the economy is weakest, is when the need is greatest for another large-scale bailout, the one described by Joel Berg, Director of the New York Coalition against Hunger: the federal investment that is needed to prevent social service providers nationwide from buckling under the increasing load on agencies that lose ground each year—ground that God the vintner wants to plant with sweet grapes.

Jesus does not exempt any of his hearers from responsibility to the demands of justice, responsibility for the common good. His parables do not allow us to settle in a land of Them and Us. No demonizing is allowed in the Kingdom of God. Blame is a waste of breath, the ruach, the breath of God moving through us to revive the discouraged, instill wisdom, and inspire brave insistence on the truth—even as it cuts both ways.